Is The Term “Illegal Immigrant” Derogatory?

Just days ago, the student government at UCLA approved a resolution condemning the use of the term “illegal” when describing immigrants who enter the United States without permission. The resolution claims the word influences the treatment of immigrants, saying:

We are aware that certain racially derogatory language used in media, political discourse and other institutional settings has historically bolstered the foundation for racially harmful actions including racial profiling practices, punitive policies targeting socially marginalized groups, hate crimes and violence.

This isn’t the first time the term has inspired public debate. Back in January, NPR’s political blog noted that Obama and a few Senators have begun purposely avoiding the word “illegal” in their speeches about immigration reform. While there are plenty of conservatives who insist on still using the term, the issue isn’t clearly divided along party lines. The conservative Hispanic Leadership Network has asked Republicans in Congress to avoid using the loaded term. And even Fox News Latino found that 46% of Latino voters find the term offensive in a recent poll.

Politicians and universities aren’t the only ones shying away from the “I-word.” Major news organizations like the Associated Press and publications like USA Today have dropped the term from their style guides in an attempt to provide more sensitive, objective coverage of immigration issues. (Notably, the New York Times has not followed suit.) Instead of saying “illegal immigrant,” journalists are now encouraged to use the terms “undocumented” or “unauthorized,” and to use more specific language when describing how someone entered the country, such as “he entered the US without a visa.”

So why is this word such a hot topic for so many? Opponents of the term believe that by calling someone an “illegal immigrant,” we’re criminalizing a person’s very existence rather than simply condemning an unlawful action they’ve taken. In a CNN article last year, Charles Garcia explained it this way:

In this country, there is still a presumption of innocence that requires a jury to convict someone of a crime. If you don’t pay your taxes, are you an illegal? What if you get a speeding ticket? A murder conviction? No. You’re still not an illegal. Even alleged terrorists and child molesters aren’t labeled illegals.

By becoming judge, jury and executioner, you dehumanize the individual and generate animosity toward them. New York Times editorial writer Lawrence Downes says “illegal” is often “a code word for racial and ethnic hatred.”

He goes on to point out that the word has an ugly history — the first use of the term “illegal immigrant” was in 1939 as a British slur against Jews who were fleeing from the Nazis and entering other countries without authorization. Given where the term comes from, it might be worth dropping it based on historical grounds alone.

What do Care2 readers think? Should journalists and public figures drop the I-word?

Photo credit: Doug Geisler


Jim Ven
Jim Ven1 years ago

thanks for the article.

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill4 years ago

They came into our country illegally, therefore they are illegal. Try going into other countries illegally see what happens!

Eternal Gardener
Eternal G4 years ago

I don't believe any of the European colonisers had any papers for legal entry? They never did, just take take take.... where did they get the right to "own" everything??? And the ones, so fearful of and opposed to immigrants are presumably natives/indigenous?! With climate change knocking on the door, everyone had better get used to change... what if it were you who gets displaced... ever thought about that????

Margaret Goodman
Margaret G4 years ago

Several comments.

People would not come to this country, the United States, legally or illegally if they could not find jobs here. The Great Recession has resulted in there being no net increase in people coming here illegally.

What do we call employers of workers who came here illegally? Illegal employers? Illegals?

What do we call the bankers who illegally foreclose on homeowners? Illegal bankers? Illegals?

What would happen to our farms, restaurants, and hotels if all the people here illegally vanished? Alabama passed laws targeting people there illegally, and the farmers had produce rotting in their fields because the farmers could not find workers to do the harvesting. Who would people find to clean their homes and help raise their children?

Ronald Reagan's father came here from Canada and never bothered to become a legal resident.

Michelle Spradley

How about if we call them "illegally arrived occupants of the US who are draining our public assistance funds so that legal and natural born US citizens cannot receive help from our own government"? Is that better?

Frances Bell
Frances Bell4 years ago

What else can you call it when they broke the law to enter the country without permits, papers, or going through the immigration process like millions of others who do things by the book? Why should they be rewarded for entering a country - any country - without permission and without contributing either to the cost of supporting them or to the LEGALLY RESIDENT society? Political correctness (which was always a crock) gone stark raving mad, if you ask me.

Kevin W.
Kevin W4 years ago

I'm sorry but I have no interest in what undocumented, uninvited immigrant invaders care to be called (yes, I think 11 million can be considered an invasion ).I suspect if they find the term illegal immigrant offensive, then they will retrace their steps back to their country of origin. How about calling them uninvited, unwelcome immigration cheats? I understand that most of these folks are hard working, law abiding people just trying to get a leg up for their families, but that doesn't give them the same rights as citizens nor the right to dictate any terms to legal citizens of the U.S. Let an American go to Mexico, Guatemala or El Salvador illegally and start dictating terms to those folks and see what happens.

Abc Defgh
Past Member 4 years ago

The term "illegal immigrants" sounds as though few in number, such as crime rates are usually less than 3% of the population in the USA. "Undocumented immigrants" sounds like an invasion of millions of illegals. Yet, some human rights advocates want "undocumented" so let them have it. The plight of the USA indigenous still remains, they are down to less than 2% of the USA population, along with the loss of biodiversity--the plight of the environment that many of the moderns helped to create.

Dolly Cinders
Dolly Cinders4 years ago

When the protester in that photo holds up a sign that reads, "No human being is illegal," it's not clear what they mean. Are they demanding new terminology, or making a point about residency rights, or doing both? I will just focus on the "illegal" terminology here.

The inaccuracy of the term "undocumented" undermines the cause of migrant rights, because it creates a perception that activists are trying to mislead or to dictate beliefs by dictating which words are permissible to use.

How about using "unlawfully present" in place of "illegal" in our terminology?

For both those migrants with papers and those without, the real issue is this: some people care about violations (of laws or other government rules) that enabled the migrants we're talking about to reside in the country. And those people often don't care whether the migrant is blameless because someone else (human traffickers, parents of DREAMers, etc) caused the violations.

Some people claim that the term "illegal" is demeaning or pejorative. Even if that could be proven, we could ask: why do those migrants deserve to be spared from that kind of term, given those violations I just mentioned? The migrants usually are willing beneficiaries of those violations, and often will commit more violations in order to stay in the USA.

Activists are demanding that people stop referring to the migrants as "illegal". Then they should suggest something much more accurate, something that captures the fact that those vi

Diana S.
Diana S4 years ago

Are individuals who blatantly flout the laws and regulations of a country they are invading CRIMINALS?!?!? Yes, indeed they are!!! And our bleeding-heart liberal legislators want to REWARD them for breaking the laws of our country, instead of rounding them all up, INCLUDING their relatives and kids, microchipping them, and shipping them back where they came from!

And, in answer to Stanley R., NO, our founding fathers were not ILLEGAL immigrants, since they were not defying any existing rules or laws at the time.